Unsustainable Fishing in Canada

A NextGen blog post by Gabrielle Wilson, Ryerson University
Photos © Alison M. Jones, unless otherwise noted.

This is the latest post to our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series. Since 2007, NWNL has supported watershed education with college internships and blogging opportunities. This NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series posts student essays; sponsors a forum for our student contributors; and invites upper-level students to propose work focused on watershed values, threats and solutions.

Gabrielle Wilson is a recent Environment and Urban Sustainability graduate from Ryerson University. This blog post examines the upward trend of unsustainable fishing in Canada, the effects of overfishing, and current mitigation strategies.

Canadian Fisheries

Annually, oceans provide the population with 156 million tons of fish.[mfn]FAO[/mfn] Currently, unsustainable fishing is attributed to a compilation of ill habits and practices seen in the industry today. This challenges both the noted figure and our ability to safeguard fish reserves for future generations. Overfishing is a trend deeply rooted in Canadian fisheries. For centuries, the Newfoundland North Atlantic cod stock was one of the largest fish stocks worldwide. But after years of unregulated fishing, only 1% of this stock remains.[mfn]Hsieh, Angelo[/mfn] This was followed by the Canadian government issuing an initiative in pursuit of population rebuild. Unfortunately, little progress was made. A recent annual report indicated that the health of general fish populations has declined over the past three years and policies/guidelines in place to support the rebuilding of depleted stock are insufficient. According to Oceana, “Canada exported $6 billion of fish and seafood products in 2015.”[mfn]CUS[/mfn] Statistics alike reveal the industries’ increasing interests in profit over ocean stewardship or sustainability. Scientists and fish harvesters are currently asking municipalities to revise current regulations linked to aquatic wellness in hopes of restoring what has been lost.

Bad Habits & Practices

As previously stated, unsustainable fishing can be linked to numerous habits and behaviors practiced in the industry today. For starters, overcatch is an issue that persists due to the fact that fishing quotas, which help to sustain stock, are often ignored for the sake of profit. The bycatch of non-target species such as turtles, sharks, and stingrays is also in an upward trend. Said species are often viewed as waste or excess whilst in pursuit of capturing specific stock and thus discarded, dead or alive. Currently, there is no requirement or law compelling fisheries to report bycatch rates, so the predicament goes unmonitored. Most deleteriously, harmful fishing gear introduces a great deal of damage to sea floors and species. And similarly to bycatch, there is no national policy or procedure overseeing the use of ethical gear in the industry.

The compilation of these practices (and more) have resulted in the unnatural depletion of fish stock. And though fish are a renewable resource, if the industry continues to take more than what is being reproduced, reserves will eventually collapse, leaving little stock for future populations. Fisheries primarily make most of their profit off of select catch, like lobster, crab, shrimp, and scallops, due to the fact that shellfish is highly valued in the current market.[mfn]CUS[/mfn] Experts report that the concentration on key species results in fish populations becoming less diverse. This puts the industry and coastal communities in a vulnerable position, as they would have little to rely on if said stock declines.[mfn]CUS[/mfn] This continued concentration can result in the overall collapse of the industry. Dr. Robert Rangeley, science director at Oceana Canada, explains that “healthy fish populations are critical to healthy ecosystems and coastal communities. They support economies and are an essential source of sustainable protein for millions of people. However, our oceans are facing growing threats and greater uncertainty, putting the marine life we all depend upon at risk. A lot is at stake, and it’s time for the government to take stronger action now to manage fisheries sustainably. We can rebuild populations to provide more opportunities for coastal communities and make them more resilient to climate change and other growing threats.”

Fishing on Salmon River, British Columbia, Cananda

Making a Change

Annual reports have put a spotlight on the absence of uniform tools, resources, and policies in the industry which has resulted in some recent progress. The Fisheries Act was revised and modernized before becoming law in June 2019 and the Canadian government has committed over $100 million to efforts and initiatives geared toward assessing and rebuilding fish stock.[mfn]Oceana[/mfn] Canada is also currently urging municipalities to “include targets and timelines in their rebuilding plans, address inconsistencies in catch monitoring by implementing the long-awaited national fishery monitoring policy, and develop and implement high-quality fishery rebuilding plans for more fish species.”

Other nonprofits and organizations alike have pointed out gaps in initiatives and proposed similar mitigation strategies in hopes of contributing to aquatic prosperity. Government officials are hopeful the investment in the industry, supported by enforced laws and regulations, will result in a “historic turning point” in aquatic ecosystems seen in Canada, they hope this change continues and persists beyond 2020.

Trail along Columbia River, British Columbia, Canada

Looking Forward

Conclusively, Canadian fisheries have been harmful to themselves, hindering the very stock that they rely on. Fish populations currently face a plethora of challenges such as climate change, habitat destruction, and pollution. Paired with injurious fishery practices, the health of marine life has become increasingly poor. Fortunately, the Canadian government has made recent efforts to address the matter. Many experts are skeptical of the change,  believing that more should be done in pursuit of aquatic wellness. It is absolutely critical that the government call on fisheries to alter their operation as this would be beneficial to the three pillars of sustainability: economic, environmental, and social. These ecosystems are fundamental to the rich history and culture of the provinces and must continue to be protected.


CUS. “Overfishing Impacts Newfoundland and Other Canadian Coastal Communities.” Coasts Under Stress, 2020. Accessed December 7th, 2021 by GW. https://www.coastsunderstress.ca/impact-overfishing.php

FAO. “The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2020.” FAO, 2020. Accessed December 6th, 2021 by GW. https://www.fao.org/state-of-fisheries-aquaculture

Hsieh, Angelo. “How unsustainable fishing practices are jeopardizing ocean health.” The Varsity, 2021. Accessed December 7th, 2021 by GW. https://thevarsity.ca/2021/10/02/how-unsustainable-fishing-practices-are-jeopardizing-ocean-health/

Oceana. “What’s Causing Overfishing in Canada?” Oceana, 2016. Accessed December 7th, 2021 by GW. https://oceana.ca/en/blog/whats-causing-overfishing-canada

Oceana Canada. “Canada’s fish populations declining; government must urgently enforce new Fisheries Act and get serious about rebuilding fisheries.” Global News Wire, 2019. Accessed December 6th, 2021 by GW. https://www.globenewswire.com/en/news-release/2019/11/13/1946200/0/en/Canada-s-fish-populations-declining-government-must-urgently-enforce-new-Fisheries-Act-and-get-serious-about-rebuilding-fisheries.html

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